How Dallas police are reducing shootings of unarmed citizens

The tragic assassination of George Floyd reignited national discussion about the use of force, accountability and reform by the police. “Defund the Police” has become a popular rallying cry and cities are considering new police models.

But not all reform efforts are equally effective. They vary on a continuum from untested measures to tried and tested, evidence-based strategies. Our research points to an important accountability policy that has been shown to reduce the shooting of citizens by Dallas officials.

According to the Police Project at NYU School of Law, police reform falls into two categories: front-end and back-end accountability measures. The former involves rigorous guidelines and practices for creating a culture of organizational accountability before things go wrong, while the latter reflects post-release methods of holding individual officials accountable for their wrongdoings.

Back-end accountability mechanisms are important and rightly received a lot of attention. But they are not enough to bring about real change. Police reform requires more of the often neglected front-end mechanisms that target institutional and organizational problems that lead to unnecessary and excessive use of force. A prime example of front-end accountability is the implementation of stricter departmental policies that limit the circumstances in which officers can use force, as well as documentation and review protocols. There is a long history of more restrictive administrative policies that are effective in reducing officer shootings and other types of less lethal violence, such as the use of tasers and pepper spray.

Beginning in the 1970s, under the direction of the New York Police Department, authorities began changing their deadly violence policy to only allow officers to shoot in “life defense” situations when there is a risk of death or serious injury or others. In addition, departments urged officers to report if they shot their firearms, and some departments set up review panels to investigate such shootings. These political changes not only resulted in significant decreases in the number of shootings of officials (especially unarmed citizens), but also reduced the racial disparities in police shootings.

Point-and-report policies are front-end accountability measures that require officials to document all instances of pointing their guns at citizens. This type of policy is not new. For example, the Police Department of Charleston, SC and La Grange, Georgia introduced such a policy in the 1990s. The Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, and New Orleans law enforcement agencies have adopted similar guidelines in recent years.

However, these departments are more of an exception to the rule, as many US law enforcement officers are not subject to point-and-report guidelines. Furthermore, there is little research on the impact of a point-and-report policy. Does such a policy reduce the number of police shootings? In a new article published in Injury Prevention, we tested the impact of the Dallas Police Department’s point-and-report policy on police shooting of citizens. It came into force on January 1, 2013 and we used publicly available recording data from DPD to investigate this. We examined the total number of shootings and the specific characteristics of those shootings before (2003 to 2012) and after (2013 to 2018) the policy change.

Before the directive, DPD had an average of 15.3 shootings per year. That average dropped to 13.0 after the policy change (a 15% decrease). Our statistical analysis found that the policy was associated with a significant, gradual reduction in the number of people being shot by the police, which began in late 2015 and continued until late 2018.

Perhaps more importantly, the policy was also linked to a decrease in the shooting of unarmed citizens (i.e. they did not have a weapon like a gun or a knife), particularly citizens whom officials believed were armed when they weren’t – a “threat” perception error “). Such an error occurs when officials mistake an item in a person’s hands, such as a cell phone, to be a weapon. The proportion of shootings to perceive threats fell by almost 80% after DPD adopted the Point and Report Directive (from 18% of all weapons or perceived weapons cases before the directive was changed to 4% afterwards).

Recently, we have not seen any increase in the proportion of these incidents in which an officer was injured. The officers’ injuries actually decreased slightly.

These results are very promising, although we can only speculate about the mechanisms that drive these effects. Perhaps the directive adds another level of organizational accountability. This could also limit the cases in which officers draw and straighten their weapons, leading them to take more time to distinguish real threats from failures in perceiving threats.

This can also reduce the potential for officers to unnecessarily escalate a situation, or it can lead them to consider more options to resolve the encounter peacefully (rather than painting themselves in a corner after pulling their guns). Five decades of research show that administrative policy is an important front-end mechanism for controlling the use of force by police officers. Clear, detailed application of violence policies that are enforced to help officers make decisions about the use of their firearms. Our study suggests that a point and report policy can do the same thing.

We need more research to understand the dynamics behind these effects, but our research shows the potential for point-and-report guidelines as key mechanisms of front-end accountability.

John Shjarback is an assistant professor in the Law and Justice Department at Rowan University.

Michael White is a professor of criminology and criminal justice in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University.

Stephen Bishopp is a lieutenant in the Dallas Police Department and a faculty member of the School of Public Health at the University of Texas at Houston (Dallas Campus).

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